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By Kenneth McLeod
Conventional political and social change activism tends to polarise, whether by accident or design. Its dynamics are driven by the goal of winning the debate, or defeating one’s opponents, or cutting a deal with powerful adversaries. It too frequently deploys fear and anger as its primary motivators, and is too often characterised by alienating self-righteousness and hostility towards opponents. Its fracturing tendency is reinforced by the adversarial nature of our political institutions and the mass media’s obsession with promoting differences and highlighting conflict.
But the challenges of the 21st century will overwhelm our hidebound templates for change. With the stakes as high as they are, ultimately we will all be either winners or losers, regardless of ideological inclination or sectarian affiliation. The intractable problems we face are not amenable to quick fixes or responsive to partisan polemics. They require a long-term strategic vision, broad popular commitment, and sustained effort over time – not notable features of either protest or party politics.
Fear and anger cannot sustain the breadth and depth of commitment to change we must build. They tend to alienate many potential participants and inevitably burn themselves out far short of any meaningful outcome. When we’re dealing with issues the resolution of which will not be seen in the lifetimes of present generations, this is a fatal weakness.
It is clear we need a fresh approach to facilitating social and cultural change that reflects the whole-system nature of the issues we face – an approach that proceeds from common interests, is empirically-based, informed by a better understanding of complex system dynamics and social psychology, and aims to bring forth strategies for collective action that all stakeholders are able to commit to or at least accept. As John Michael Greer (2009) points out, adaptive responses to crisis have four features: they are scalable, resilient, modular, and open.
We know from bitter experience that alienation is the chief outcome of the tokenistic approach to stakeholder engagement habitually employed by public bureaucracies. The efficacy of well designed processes for building stakeholder alliances for change has been repeatedly demonstrated, and the outcomes are much more robust.
Collective action arising from inclusive dialogue is not a new idea. In one way or another it is how all enduring communities work. But it is a model that can help find solutions to bigger problems by bringing all relevant stakeholders into a deliberative process to establish common ground, identify key issues, agree on priorities, and develop strategies informed by the best available evidence. And, by its nature, it encourages innovative solutions and strengthens social capital. If regular opportunities to review and reflect on the experience are built into the process, stakeholder alliances can yield valuable social learning.
This article appears on the website Age of Transition, and is adapted here with kind permission.